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Aristotle: "Tragedy" PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 05 May 2010 04:20

Aristotle’s Poetics aims to give an account of what he calls ‘poetry’ (for him, the term includes the lyric, the epos, and the drama). Aristotle attempts to explain ‘poetry’ through ‘first principles’ and by discerning its different genres and component elements. His analysis of tragedy constitutes the core of his discussion. “Although Aristotle’s Poetics is universally acknowledged in Western critical tradition,” Marvin Carlson explains, “almost every detail about his seminal work has aroused divergent opinions.” The centerpiece of Aristotle’s surviving work is his examination of tragedy:

 

Tragedy, then is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis for these emotions.


Aristotle distinguishes between the three genres of poetry in three ways: differences in the means, the objects and the modes of their imitations. The means cover language, rhythm, and harmony, used separately or in combination. The objects refer to actions, virtuous or vicious, and the agents, good or bad. As a complete whole in itself having beginning, middle, and end, every tragedy includes six parts: plot (mythos), character (ethos), thought (dianoia), diction (lexis), melody (Melos), and spectacle (opsis). The key elements of the plot are reversals (peripeteia), recognitions (anagnorisis) and suffering (pathis). The best form of tragedy, Aristotle argues, has a plot that is what he calls “complex”, it imitates actions arousing horror, fear and pity, and the hero’s forutune changes from happiness to misery because of some tragic mistake (hamartia) that he or she makes. The horrific deed may be done consciously and knowingly (Medea), unknowingly (Oedipus), or unknowingly but with timely discovery. The characters must be good, appropriate, consistent, or consistently inconsistent, he argues.

The classic discussion of Greek tragedy is Aristotle’s Poetics. He defines tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in itself”. He continues, “Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression”. The writer presents “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to interpret its catharsis of such emotions” (by catharsis, Aristotle means a purging or sweeping away of the pity and fear aroused by the tragic action). The basic difference Aristotle draws between tragedy and other genres, such as comedy and the epic, is the “tragic pleasure of pity and fear” the audience feel watching a tragedy. In order for the tragic hero to arouse these feeling in the audience, he cannot be either all good or all evil but must be someone the audience can identify with; however, if he is superior in some way(s), the tragic pleasure is intensified. His disastrous end results from a mistaken action, which in turn arises from a tragic flaw or from a tragic error in judgment. Often the tragic flaw is hubris, an excessive pride that causes the hero to ignore a divine warning or to break a moral law. It has been suggested that because the tragic hero’s suffering is greater than his offense, the audience feels pity; because the audience members perceive that they could behave similarly, the feel pity.

 

According to Aristotle, tragedy came from the efforts of poets to present men as ‘nobler’, or ‘better’ than they are in real life. Comedy, on the other hand, shows a ‘lower type’ of person, and reveals humans to be worse than they are in average. Epic poetry, on the other hand, imitates ‘noble’ men like tragedy, but only has one type of meter – unlike tragedy, which can have several – and is narrative in form. As mentioned above, Aristotle lays out six elements of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Plot is ‘the soul’ of tragedy, because action is paramount to the significance of a drama, and all other elements are subsidiary. A plot must have a beginning, middle, and end; it must also be universal in significance, have a determinate structure, and maintain a unity of theme and purpose. Plato also must contain elements of astonishment, reversal (peripeteia), recognition, and suffering. Reversal is an ironic twist or change by which the main action of the story comes full-circle. Recognition, meanwhile, is the change from ignorance to knowledge, usually involving people coming to understand one another’s true identities. Suffering is a destructive or painful action, which is often the result of a reversal or recognition. All three elements coalesce to create “catharsis”, which is the engenderment of fear and pity in the audience: pity for the tragic hero’s plight, and fear that his fate might befall us.

 

When it comes to character, a poet should aim for four things. First, the hero must be ‘good’, and thus manifest moral purpose in his speech. Second, the hero must have propriety, or ‘mainly valor’. Thirdly, the hero must be ‘true to life’. And finally, the hero must be consistent. Tragedy and Epic poetry fall into the same categories: simple, complex (driven by reversal and recognition), ethical (moral) or pathetic (passion). There are a few differences between tragedy and epic, however. First, an epic poem does not use song or spectacle to achieve its cathartic effect. Second, epic often cannot be presented at a single setting, whereas tragedies are usually able to be seen in a single viewing. Finally, the ‘heroic measure’ of epic poetry is hexameter, where tragedy often uses other forms of meter to achieve the rhythms of different characters’ speech. Aristotle also lays out the elements of successful imitation. The poet must imitate either thing as they are, things as they are thought to be, or things as they ought to be. The poet must also imitate in action and language (preferably metaphors or contemporary words). Errors come when the poet imitates incorrectly – and thus destroys the essence of the poem – or when the poet accidentally makes an error (a factual error, for instance). Aristotle does not believe that factual errors sabotage the entire work; errors that limit or compromise the unity of a given work, however, are much more consequential.

Aristotle concludes by tackling the question of whether the epic or tragic form is ‘higher’. Most critics of his time argued that tragedy was for an inferior audience that required the gesture of performers, while epic poetry was for a ‘cultivated audience’ which could filter a narrative form through their own imaginations. In reply, Aristotle notes that epic recitation can be marred by overdone gesticulation in the same way as a tragedy; moreover, tragedy, like poetry, can produce its effect without action-its power is in the mere reading. Aristotle argues that tragedy is, in fact, superior to epic, because it has all the epic elements as well as spectacle and music to provide an indulgent pleasure for the audience. Tragedy, then, despite the arguments of other critics, is the higher art for Aristotle.

 
 
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